A brutal, racially-motivated murder called her to Jasper. She was reluctant to answer. But when she arrived, nothing could have prepared her for the way Jasper would affect her or the way she would affect Jasper. Here, veteran journalist and first-time author Joyce King shares her experiences writing the book that would educate a nation and heal a small town in East Texas.
texasmonthly.com: As a journalist, you were assigned to cover the trials of all three defendants. What were your thoughts and assumptions going in? Did they change at all as the trials progressed?
Joyce King: There is a bit of background. I had just lost my job as a news anchor for CBS radio, and I was very bitter going to Jasper. I thought it was a demotion to be made a street reporter again after being an anchor so long. I felt rusty, I felt frightened. I did not want to go to Jasper. I had racial issues of my own. I knew this story would break my heart, and it did. The pivotal thing that changed my attitude was a trip I took out to Huff Creek, where James Byrd, Jr., was dragged. I walked the three-mile route; that instantly changed my perspective. I knew that the mission was greater than me. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew that I was there for more than just reporting.
texasmonthly.com: As the trials came to a close, what made you decide that you needed to write this book?
JK: Some of the reporters and I were joking around saying, “Who’s going to do this? Who’s going to tell this story?” My good friend Monique Nation, who was a television reporter for the Fox station in Houston, said, “King, if you don’t do it, it’s not going to get done. None of us are going to write it.” She really believed and encouraged me. When I got home, I began to look at my notes from the trial, and I thought, “I should do this.” And so, I started. After 22 years in broadcasting, I resigned my position with CBS and moved to Jasper in January 2000, which was a little more than a month after the last trial ended. A lot of people were stunned.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you live there?
JK: I lived in Jasper for a month. I wanted to see what these people were like up close. I wanted to see what they were like without a trial, without television cameras, without the international scrutiny. They were friendly, but very suspicious. I don’t blame them because a lot of people in the media had gotten the story wrong. There were people who said things about their town that were unforgivable. A lot of them thought I was from New York, which I found hysterical being that I’m a native Texan, born in Houston. I was always justifying myself as being a real Texan. I think I won most of them over with my integrity, my professionalism, and with just reassuring them all through it—”I don’t have an agent; I don’t have a publisher; I don’t even have a job anymore; I’m just stepping out on faith because I believe this town needs someone to put the truth down in black and white.” And that’s what I set out to do, to give an accurate account so people would know.
texasmonthly.com: Did you get a good response from residents of Jasper after the book was published?
JK: Because of my national tour, it took me a while to get back to Jasper. I was nervous and apprehensive. I wondered how they would receive me. Well, when I got there, it was a lot of love. Everyone was hugging me. The book helped the town in its healing process. They felt like my book told the truth, and I agree. There was compassion and sensitivity. I simply gave readers a walk in my shoes. I didn’t try to get into the minds of the killers. There wasn’t much there anyway. I didn’t try to tell you that this sort of thing will never happen again. That’s not for me to say. But what I did do is defend the justice that was served in this case. We’ve had large cities get it wrong in the case of racial justice, and this little town got it right. And I think for a black woman, a black journalist to stand up and say that, caught a lot of people off guard.
texasmonthly.com: Were the killers an anomaly in Jasper, or is racial tension more common there then one might think?
JK: Jasper bills itself the “Jewel of the Forest.” It is peaceful and serene. It’s got a Mayberry quality about it, except I never saw any black people in Mayberry. But in this case, Jasper is almost half black, half white. There was something different about Jasperites and how they related to one another. The mayor was black. That was shocking to me at first. The school superintendent was black. The sheriff and the district attorney were white. But these people got along. Jasper was completely the opposite of everything I knew to be true about East Texas. I think one of the last questions I asked in my first interview with the sheriff was, “What would you like the outcome of this case to be?” He paused a long time and he said, “Well, justice for the blacks and the whites.” I took my mother to the book signing there. She was stunned at the outpouring of love. She has already threatened to buy a piece of land in Jasper. She wants to move there, if that gives you any indication.
texasmonthly.com: You talk about the role prison played in forming the racist murderous mentalities of two of the killers. What kind of reforms could be made to prevent the forming of racial gangs?
JK: I give an entire chapter on my research done inside the Texas prison system. What happened to two of these white boys, supposedly normal, when they went in prison that they would come out with their bodies covered with racist tattoos and this mentality that they hated all blacks and Jews? What happened? I went to the unit where two of them met and served time. I didn’t get all the answers, but I got enough to satisfy my curiosity that legislators need to look at how the prison system is structured. A big thing is the classification of inmates. I saw some examples where I would hope some less violent offenders would be sent to other places than where they ended up. I know a lot of people would like to say, “Well, they’re criminals; let’s lock them in there and throw away the key.” But prison is the most racially divisive institution in this country. Most of them are going to get out, and we expect them to drop this way of thinking. I think that with an awareness campaign at least we wouldn’t be so stunned, so shocked that this exists. But I also gave the prison system credit where credit is due. It did set aside some money to study gangs and to try to train the public a little bit. After the murder of Mr. Byrd, I think there was something like $350,000 set aside to help. And I do know that in the past year, it has instituted a gang renunciation program to help those inmates with the courage to say, “I really want to be out of this, because I’m gonna get out soon and I need to learn how to live in the free world.”
texasmonthly.com: Two of the men received the death penalty. Do you believe in capital punishment?
JK: I will have to quote Pat Hardy, the assistant district attorney. He said, “Nothing we could ever do to Lawrence Russell Brewer would bring justice to James Byrd, Jr.” I just don’t see where there are any winners in the case because the Byrd family will never see their loved one again. And I think that’s something people forget. Personally, I do not believe in capital punishment, but after I saw the crime scene photos, I was grateful to not have to be in the place of those 36 jurors. So that’s a very difficult question. On the one hand, it was the only punishment the jurors had that would send a message, so I understand why they did it. But I don’t know that I would have been able to. It’s very, very difficult.
texasmonthly.com: Do you feel that enhanced punishment for hate crimes is beneficial? Would the crime committed against Mr. Byrd been any less heinous if the motivation had been different?
JK: Well that’s another provocative question. Forty-two states have hate crime legislation, but it is rarely evoked because a lot of people just feel, legally, it’s toothless. As far as the enhancements go for the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes law, I think it’s a great tribute to Mr. Byrd and his name. I think it was courageous for Governor Perry to do what he did, especially when you consider his predecessor, George W. Bush, was unable to sign such legislation. I don’t think a lot of people understand that in addition to the enhancements, there are things like training for police officers to be able to recognize what a hate crime is. As far as enhanced penalties, a lot of people remain unclear. I really have not studied hate crimes law, per say, but I do know that I believe it sends a message.
texasmonthly.com: Furthermore, how do we define “hate crime”? Where do we draw the line?
JK: I think people in their own mind know where to draw the line. I think that if someone walks into a post office and kills everybody, you can’t consider it a hate crime even though it was a hateful thing to do. Someone said to me on the book tour, “Well, isn’t all murder hate?” People who are arguing over this tend to think that by separating groups and breaking them down, you’re saying one group is better than another and deserves more protection. I don’t think that’s what legislators are saying at all. I think they’re simply saying, “Look at the history of a group. Who is it that has needed protection?” If we had equal rights all along, there wouldn’t be a cry for this.
texasmonthly.com: These events make it clear that brutal racism is still a reality. But unlike before, justice was served. Has all of this left you feeling hopeful that we will continue to make progress toward racial equality and understanding, or do you feel uncertain that we will ever erase hatred?
JK: I definitely think that if you get to the end of the book, if you are courageous enough to read it, you will find hope, healing, and a degree of reconciliation. I mean who doesn’t need that? I see people talk about it all the time, but few are willing to examine how we get there. And I think if you examine this case, you will find one or two answers along the way—definitely hope, a degree of peace. I really wanted people to say when they got to the end of the book, “You know, I need to look at my own stereotypes about blacks, about whites, about journalists, about justice, about racial vindication.”
texasmonthly.com: This is your first book. Any plans to write more in the future?
JK: I’m working on the second book now. It’s difficult to work on it while this tour is still in motion, but I find it soothing to be working on something else during the week and then be in different cities on the weekend to talk about book one. So I’m busy.